Thoughts and ideas from The Physician Executive
Physician Leaders Need Excellent Active Listening Skills
May 20, 2019 at 12:00 AM
by The Physician Executive
active listening

As physicians move increasingly into leadership roles within your organizations, your ability to communicate effectively will become critical. And great communication begins with great listening!

Hopefully, as a clinician, you honed the art of listening to your patients. But since we physicians are renowned for interrupting early in a patient visit, and our brains are usually furiously working on diagnosing what is wrong with the patient, it’s a fair bet that we are not very good at Active Listening.

What is Active Listening? 

Unless our hearing is impaired, we all have the capability of “hearing” what is being said — we see the mouth move, we hear sounds come out, and we recognize words that sound familiar… Or somewhat familiar!

However, not all of us listen.

Active listening takes place when the speaker has our full attention, we are not distracted by our own thoughts or planning what we’re going to say next, and we find ourselves becoming curious about and engaged in the topic at hand.

As simple as the following may sound, it rarely happens well in practice. However, if you master these steps, your interpersonal and leadership skills will improve dramatically.

The ten steps to excellent Active Listening 

1. Stop whatever you’re doing and turn towards the speaker, or give him or her your full attention without distraction when you’re on the phone

2. If the speaker is in front of you, begin by making eye contact. Don’t stare at his or her chin or ears … look directly into the eyes, and be sure to soften your gaze so that you don’t appear to be staring or glaring.

3. Active listening engages your entire face and body – you appear intent or animated, your torso may even be angled slightly towards the speaker, and your whole body conveys that you are paying attention.

4. Allow a person to finish his or her sentence or thought process. A useful acronym to remember and truly exercise here is W.A.I.T“Why Am I Talking?”

Here is an interesting little fact. The six letters that make up the word “listen” can be rearranged to make the word “silent”!

5. If you have to interrupt because the story is lengthy, wandering or unduly time-consuming, begin by saying something like “I apologize if I appear rude, but I have to interrupt because …”

6. Refrain from formulating your response until the other person had finished speaking. It’s perfectly okay, at this point, to pause and reflect on how you want to respond, even if there are a few seconds of silence.

7. Try to suspend immediate judgment or, worse still, condemnation. Instead, adopt an attitude of deep curiosity — make it your goal to discover or uncover what is at the heart of the other person’s communication.

8. This means that you have to ask questions. The best questions are open-ended; they seek to understand, and typically begin with the words “how”, “what”, “when”, and careful use of the word “why” — avoid sounding like an interrogator with your “why”!

9. Succinctly summarize what it is you heard the other person say, and check in with him or her – “If I understand you correctly, you are saying/wondering/concerned about/asking …”.

10. Ask for clarification if your summary is not entirely accurate. Keep at it, until you feel you have a good grasp of the conversation and/or the speaker’s intent.

Here’s to your better listening!